[lg policy] Sri Lanka: UNP in tailspin at Uva

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jul 25 13:38:30 UTC 2009

UNP in tailspin at Uva

“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” describes the grit
and courage of people who are ready to face the most difficult of
challenges. What we see in our political arena these days is the exact
reverse of this. One expects an Opposition political party that has a
history almost as long as our years of freedom from colonial rule,
rightly boasts of having more than 30 percent of the popular vote, and
has held office for nearly half the years since independence, to have
some grit and determination when it comes to the hurly-burly of
politics, even in facing losses.

But that is not the case with Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party - the
United National Party, today. It shows every sign of political
stumbling; shaky in its policies, uncertain of its statements,
confusing in its thinking and with no clear direction to its
followers, who are eager for good leadership in facing national
issues. The confusion in its ranks is seen by the proposal that is to
come up soon before its Political Affairs Committee, to change the
official policy of the party on the national question from that of a
federal or quasi-federal position to one of a unitary state. There
could be many arguments in favour of the change, the most obvious
being that it seems as bad as flogging a dead horse to keep on talking
of some measure of federalism after the LTTE has been militarily
defeated, together with its separatist goal, and federal path to
achieve it.

The UNP may have come to realize the inevitability of Sri Lanka being
a unitary state, at least for the foreseeable future, and sees no
purpose in hanging on to its pro-federal beliefs anymore; not even the
asymmetric devolution that was at one time was eagerly touted by Ranil

But proposing the about turn in policy just now, after the President
Rajapaksa’s success in defeating the LTTE, tends to show more weakness
than strength within the UNP. Grabbing the slogan of the winner may
look good, but it is not always the path to success. The UNP
leadership of today has obviously forgotten its own past, about
U-turns in policy.

No doubt JRJ who engineered the UNP’s U-turn on language policy at the
special Kelaniya Convention in 1955, and made Sinhala Only the party
policy, thought it was best to join the winning side on the language
issue. But, the people did not believe the UNP to deliver on language
or anything else. In the General Election that followed in 1956, the
UNP that offered Sinhala Only in month after election was reduced to
just eight seats, and SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP-led MEP romped home,
with the promise of Sinhala Only in 24 hours. Surprisingly, the LSSP
that supported parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil gained more
seats than the UNP. And interestingly, the MEP that won with Sinhala
Only, faced the polls and won thanks in large measure to a no contest
pact with the LSSP and CP, both of which stood for Sinhala and Tamil
with parity of status.

A good student of politics will see that it was not Sinhala Only per
se, that propelled the MEP to power. But the bigger lesson is that
changing one’s policy to fall in line with those who are clearly on
the winning side, will not necessarily give you the success that is

The UNP is today on a losing spin. Any good leadership will pause to
take serious stock of the situation and come up with proper policies
and solutions that are relevant to the needs of today, and not even
consider embracing the policy of the winner in the hope of success.
What people look for in political leadership is differentiation, and
not similarity. Jumping onto the winning bandwagon can never be the
path to success for a major political party; that is if the UNP still
considers itself as such a party.

Into a spin
When the going gets tough, the weak get into a spin. That is what has
happened to the UNP today. There is total confusion not just in its
ranks, but even at the very top. How else can one explain the party
leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, former Prime Minister, and possibly the
longest serving Leader of the Opposition, with promise of many more
years there too, forgetting the date of a major election? Forgetting
the date in one’s study when reading or in the washroom when singing,
can be understood; but certainly not in public.

Not at a political rally to ask people to vote for your party and your
candidates. This is what happened at Moneragala earlier this week. The
Uva Provincial Council election is scheduled for August 8. But the
leader of the UNP, not once, but twice, urged the people of Moneragala
to get up early on August 18, go to the polls and ensure the victory
of the UNP candidates.

The reaction from UNP supporters was not funny. They showed their
anger with boos and jeers and flying chairs, too. It would have
pleased those rebelling against the UNP leadership, as well as the
rivals in the UPFA. But, that is the quality of UNP leadership today.
When the going gets tough, Ranil doesn’t get going. He gets into a
spin. He trips, he falls. Is this the man to contest the next
Presidential Polls? The UNP had better do some hard thinking.

AP and Visa woes
It is clear that Associated Press (AP) and some sections of the media
here are trying to make as issue of the departure of Ravi Nessman, the
AP correspondent in Colombo for the past two years.

There are efforts to show that he was forced out of the country. That
is exactly what an AP Bureau person from Bangkok asked me earlier this
week, about Nessman’s departure. The specific question was “Why was
the AP Correspondent forced out of Sri Lanka?” I checked the facts and
gave the correct answer. He was not forced out of the country. His
visa had expired, and was not extended. Far from forcing him out, Ravi
Nessman came here on a visa for only one year in June 2007.

‘Forcing out’
On completing one year he sought an extension, which was granted, and
that was it. When he knew that there would no other extension, he
requested two weeks to make arrangements for his departure, and was
given that time. He left on July 20, 09.

That is hardly a case of forcing a journalist out. The Government has
the power and the right to impose the 20 x 24 rule on anyone and have
the person ordered out in 24 hours with 20 kg of baggage. That was not
done to Ravi Nessman, He was treated in keeping with the sovereign
rights of Sri Lanka in dealing with foreigners, whoever they are, that
are here on a visa given by the Government.

When I explained to the Bangkok AP person Duff Brown, that the usual
term for foreign correspondents from agencies is two to three years,
and the general turn around period is two years, I was asked why late
Dilip Ganguly, also of AP, was allowed to stay here for 10 years.

My answer was that Dilip was the exception, and not the rule. Most
other agency people who serve here go away after two years, and there
is no fuss made, because they and their agencies know the rules of
national sovereignty that are involved in the issue of visas.

There can always be exceptions to these rules, which is again at the
pleasure of the host country. This is the case in the UK, USA and all
other frequently pointed out examples of democracy.

Mark Tulley was BBC correspondent in India for goodness knows so many
years, he has settled down there now.

But he was once sent back during the emergency rule of Indira Gandhi.
Yet the length of time Mark Tulley has been reporting from India
cannot be made a reason or precedent for any of his successors such as
Chris Morris or any other to get the same length of stay.

There are attempts to make out that it was Nessman’s reporting of the
last days of fighting to liberate the Tamil civilians held hostage by
the LTTE, and especially his continued reporting of the highly
questionable reports from the three doctors in LTTE territory that led
to the refusal of his visa extension.

If that be the case he could have been sent out at that time, just
like how some western journalists were refused visas to enter the
country because of all those lies they wrote about the barbed wire
surrounded holding camps of the IDPs.

The issuance of a visa to a foreigner, even to a journalist, is the
right of the Government of a sovereign nation. It would have been
better if AP had thought of this and made some prior arrangements to
replace Nessman after he completed his extended stay of one year,
enjoying the hospitality of Sri Lanka in every way. I’m waiting for
the next howl over Nessman’s visa to come from Reporters without

They can all keep howling, but interestingly the Foreign
Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka, of which Nessman was a
member, and I believe as an office-bearer too, seems to know the visa
rules of a sovereign state better than the AP bureaus, whether in
Bangkok or anywhere else, and sections of the media here trying to
blow this non-issue out of proportion.


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